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    Fill 'Er Up

    Retailers take another look at self-serve vs. full-serve gasoline

    Today, the vast majority of service stations across the country cater to consumers on the go looking to pull up, swipe a card, fill the tank and jet away. Self-service gasoline is one of the evolutionary hallmarks of the petroleum marketing industry that has come to be the norm for most convenience stores. While many stations do still offer full-service accommodations, it's the customers' time-starved demand for helping themselves that has brought about the age of the self-serve fill up.

    "We believe it's a convenience for the customer to do it themselves," said Denise Randall, spokesperson for Olympia, Wash.-based West Star Corp., which operates three NOW! c-stores in Washington, all of which are self-serve stations. "The customers get in, they get out and they're on their own time. It's really not a difficult task to pump your own gas."

    While self-service may have emerged as the convenience industry standard, there are those who still tout the benefits of offering full-service gasoline to customers. Full-serve offers customers a safe means of pumping gasoline, particularly for elderly, pregnant or handicapped consumers who would otherwise have difficulty.

    Full service has its benefits, even among today's rushed consumers. For retailers, it offers a chance for those who want to provide a niche not offered by their closest competitors to have an above-and-beyond service. And for customers, full service offers a needed accommodation for anyone from the elderly gentleman with a cast on his leg to the mother who doesn't want to get gasoline on her hands.

    Service in Full

    Fifty years ago, it was not uncommon for a gas station attendant to be on hand with a cap and a smile, ready to fill your tank, check your tires, wax your hood and spit shine your windows for no extra charge, but the days of those kind of fine-tuned service extras have long past. Or have they?

    In New Jersey and Oregon, self-service gasoline is merely a pipe dream thanks to statewide bans on customers pumping their own gasoline. (Both states' bans, enacted in 1949 and 1951, respectively, were initially due to safety concerns.) Yet, if you ask a 104-store New Jersey operator like Whitehouse Station-based Quick Chek Food Stores whether they'd add self-service gas islands if they could, the answer is an undeniable "No way," said Mike Murphy, the chain's senior vice president.

    "Two of our sites are within 10 minutes of the Pennsylvania border, and we get many people that will fill up in New Jersey because they don't want to have to pump it themselves," Murphy said.

    Quick Chek just started adding gasoline to its stores two and a half years ago and is now up to four full-serve gas sites. The company views full-service on the gasoline island as another means of providing stellar customer service — something the company prides itself on. Each attendant goes through intensive Web-based training and customer service training and is educated on the safety standards relative to fuel, Murphy said.

    "Customers really like the fact that there's someone out there that can communicate with them and seems to care about them as a customer," he said. "I think the uniform really means something to a customer. It's an advantage that we have in many of our locations, because some of our competitors don't have quality people out there."

    Balancing the Acts

    Warren, Pa.-based United Refining Co. originally began as a full-serve-only operation, and gradually expanded several of its locations into convenience stores with self-service when the trend started growing a few decades ago. Now with some 375 stores operating under the Kwik Fill, Red Apple Food Marts and Country Fair banners in Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio, the company finds a nice balance between self- and full-service is their key to success.

    According to Peter Conley, vice president of the company's Kwik Fill/Red Apple Food Mart division, United Refining still operates quite a few full-serve stations, several of which have been remodeled and still continued a full-service offer. "Some of our highest-volume locations are full-serve," Conley said. "We're over 200,000, close to 300,000 gallons per month in some of our locations. There are a lot of people out there who don't want to pump their own gas."

    With their full-serve operations, United Refining is basically operating with fewer employees than what a full c-store location with a food operation would require. Each island also offers pay-at-the-pump services, so that the attendant doesn't have to go inside the store to complete a transaction.

    What's more, the company offers its full-service gasoline at the same price a self-serve shopper would pay. "We could try to get a couple cents more, but we feel we need to stay competitive," Conley explained. "You'll notice a decrease in volume if the price gets higher, versus what the self-serve price is."

    United Refining's customers know which locations have full-serve and which are self-serve only, Conley said, which leads to a good deal of repeat customers at the full-serve stations.

    "That's sort of been a little niche for us as some of our competitors have gotten bigger into the convenience store business," Conley explained. "When everyone else in the community is a self-service convenience store and we're still the old traditional full-serve station, then we've become something that attracts customers to our locations."

    Paid in Full

    For the smaller convenience operation, when self-serve gas doesn't bring in the volumes needed to compete with bigger competitors, full-service can actually be a profitable distinguishing factor.

    For a three-pump, single-location operation such as D&L Gulf, a family-owned service station in Shippensburg, Pa., full-service doesn't sound like a bad option. The company operates two self-serve and one full-serve island on its property, but says it would gladly switch to all full-serve if legislation mandated (see "Pending in Pennsylvania," at left).

    "I think it would help on our end," said Barry Dice, owner of D&L Gulf. "If these big convenience stores that have a lot of gas pumps had to pay someone to be out there at each one of those pumps, they would have to hire a lot more people. They would have to take all their people inside making hoagies and send them outside to pump gas."

    With only one pump to man at a time, D&L Gulf can offer its full-service customers more than just hand-pumped gasoline. A customer who pulls up to the station's full-service island gets his windows washed, tire pressure checked and oil checked, at a price differential of 20 cents a gallon more than the self-serve rate. "Even if every state passes laws that bans self-serve, I don't think you'll see full service like that," Dice said. "They might have an attendant there that will hold the nozzle and collect the money, but that's it."

    D&L Gulf manages volumes of about 60,000 gallons per month with only three gas pumps, and attributes a large part of that to its loyal full-service customers. The company also just installed brand new pumps in March and hopes to see its numbers continue to climb through the summer.

    Despite self-service being readily available in service stations nationwide, there's still something to be said of the relationship between a full-service gas customer and the station he regularly frequents. As Dice put it, "Most of our full-service customers are our most loyal customers." n

    Pending in Pennsylvania

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